(Posted originally on February 9th, 2008)
So, it’s two years of Partly About Food now. Or the anniversary was already on Monday, but due to very uninteresting reasons, it went unannounced at the time. There’s a comic about the anniversary coming up, but not today, because I spent my drawing time talking on the phone about mortgages and writing this little essay.
The second year in the history of this website probably wasn't the most glorious one, and - inspite of my best intentions and ambitions - I can’t guarantee that the third year will be much better. When you are a person with a wife, child, full-time job, social life, bunch of other distracting hobbies (i.e. gaming, beer and sofa-testing), and on top of it all you suffer from a strange and profound aversion towards labour of any kind, you aren’t very likely to be the world’s most productive comic artist.
Excuses, ad infinitum. I’m lazy and that’s just not going to change, but I do aim to improve from the current level of productivity. One big reason to do so is that I really like the story Deadly Mushrooms, which will be the main feature of this site for a long time. If I manage to pull it off the way I have imagined it in my head, it will turn into an entertaining and insightful story. Anyways, even if posting frequency during the second year of Mostly About Food has been embarrassingly low (and I have lost some 60 % of my readers because of that), I still don’t see it as a complete disaster. I feel that I have improved at least artistically and the style has evolved into a more innovative and web-friendly direction. That’s gotta count for something, right?
And now for something slightly different. Namely, I had a revelation the other day, while I was going to get Axel home from daycare. It suddenly dawned on me, why much of the comics that are aimed at a mature audience never really become huge sellers and mainstream in the same manner as books and films do. And why comics just don’t make a break with grown-ups. Namely, a lot of the mature (as in not just for kids, I’m not talking about porn here) comics are only mature in relation to most other comics: The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen may be very deep within their own context, but for most people, who otherwise find it very entertaining to read and watch fictional books and movies, the problem is in the subject itself, i.e. superheroes. A lot of people find the concept of superheroes so incredible and juvenile that they dismiss any stories based on superheroes just because of that. I am not saying that, for instance, Watchmen isn’t a great piece of sequential art and/or fiction (because it IS), but comics like that aren’t attracting any new adults into the world of comics. Watchmen is great for those, who have read a lot of (different) comics as a youngster and just didn’t give it up when they started to work.
The relative maturity isn’t limited only to superhero comics. Let’s consider, for example, Tintin and The Blue Lotus. It is a lot more serious work than any Tintin’s adventures before it and it does bring up very boldly and clearly some – at least at the time - uncomfortable issues. But, taken out of its reference group (other Tintin books and adventure comics), it doesn’t necessarily stand out as an overwhelmingly deep and insightful criticism of European-Japanese colonialists’ exploitation of China.
A lot of comics that aren’t made for kids have elements of incredibility, psychedelia, fantasy and strangeness, which for some reason isn’t very popular among most grown-ups. Some of the comics are so artistic and convoluted that they are difficult to understand. For instance, I really enjoy the mind-numbingly sexy women and situations in Milo Manara’s comics, but I just don’t get what they are all about. Of course, there are exceptions, like From Hell, which is very credible and a thousand times more captivating conspiracy theory than The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons put together. So it’s not like comics are superficial by definition. But I’d assume that comics like From Hell suffer from the obscurity of comic books in general. (It probably doesn’t help that some of them are turned into movies, which are a lot more cartoony than the comics themselves) The bottom line is, a great big share of comics for grown-ups don’t get through to the intended target group, because they see the whole medium as immature and incredible.
So, how does this go together with the success of, say, Harry Potter? Well, I would guess that a lot of adults have been tricked into reading the books because that’s all their kids can talk about. But more importantly, a book – as opposed to a comic book or magazine – seems to be a more grown-up way to entertain oneself, no matter the subject. Somehow it just isn’t as embarrassing to admit having read Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, than getting caught reading Elfquest.
How are we to find new adult readers, then? I don’t know. Why do kids stop reading comics at some point? Is it because the mainstream comics are so heavily based on superheroes and Disney characters that they aren’t exactly aware of the more mature stuff? Or don’t adults have the time to really concentrate on a comic book? Are mature comics so much harder to read than detective stories? Or is it because a lot of the comics people read as kids are funny, so people keep on reading the funny comics even as grown-ups? Having never been exposed to more serious comics at an early age makes it harder to find those comics as an adult, maybe? The humour thing might be one of the reasons, because when I think of strip comics, there is a whole bunch of very succesful comics for mature audiences. Like Dilbert or Baby Blues– you can’t really get most of the jokes in them without ever having had a job or children.
Maybe it’s just a matter of marketing. Today there is no point in making a lot of noise about a comic book, because it’s just not going to sell ten million copies worldwide. But why could it not be changed? Why not make a long-term marketing commitment to comics, just to increase the awareness of the general public? So, you spend a ginormous amount of money in marketing comic books that won’t make it to any newspaper’s bestseller list, but it just might lead to the concept of comic book pushing its appreciation and accessibility closer to ordinary books and then we would have a new mainstream medium with a lot of potential. As in earnings and the the prospect of which, I am sad to admit, are a crucial part of pushing any product to the people.
Maybe it is so that marketing budgets of a necessary scale to reach the critical mass just don’t exist. I am not discussing this because I am unhappy for not making any money out of comics – if I worked hard enough on it, I possibly could earn a part of my living from them. I am just bothered by the fact that a lot of people are unaware of or deliberately dismissing a whole lot of good art, documentary, fiction and entertainment for no good reason. I can’t see it, why comics and especially comic books for adults should forever remain marginalized, only to be enjoyed by live-action role-players and other daydreamer freaks like myself.
What are we going to do about it?
PS: Here's a (relatively old) picture of someone who really likes his food and never minds the comics:
Renfield, bring me my supper at once!